Monday 28 February 2011

Dazed and Confused

It is a dazzling February morning. The overnight frost on the windows has melted away, in what appears to have been seconds, to reveal a hazy but brilliant vista of moody mountains and forbidding blue sea. I have to look askance at it to avoid blinding myself.

I woke at 7 and checked my alarm clock/phone to find that the battery had died during the night. The alarm had been due to go off at 7.05. I must tune down my body clock. Accidentally sleeping late would be something of a novelty.

The crows in the field next door have begun their raucous morning vigil. They start their ragged chorus at dawn so it's bearable at this time of year but, in a couple of months time, it will begin to wear a little thin. I've never paid the crows enough attention to establish their species but they could be Rooks (Corvus frugilegus), as there are signs of grey on their beaks. Frugilegus is Latin for "food gathering" - how simple and apt.

Not that this relates to carrion birds but I should just mention the excellent venison burgers, from Lochaber Game Services, that we had for dinner last night. It's unusual to be able to get venison burgers with absolutely no "filler" in them. Venison is treated like a luxury but it should be cheap and easily available here given the number of deer roaming the roads.

I really need to wake myself up so will have to resort to the "nuclear" option: Finely ground French coffee, roasted to within an inch of carbonisation. Brewing it to produce drinkable coffee is a black (sic) art and failure to strictly adhere to the gram-precise measuring requirements will result in something that tastes like burnt tyres and ensures that my body clock will not be required again for some time due to the fact that sleep will not be an option.

Monday 14 February 2011

The Tail of the Monk and the Stone

Having a friend/friends to stay is a great incentive (and excuse) to get some nice fish in and indulge in some hearty gastronomic adventures.

Last week presented such an opportunity so I scanned my latest favourite fish recipe book, 'The Billingsgate Market Cookbook' by C.J. Jackson, for some inspiration, then took to the Co-Op to find some ingredients roughly equivalent to the ones given in the recipes. And from there onward to the butcher (?!) to collect a lovely big monkfish tail. Later I even managed to accost the flighty fishman on his weekly hurtle from east to west, and purchase a goodly pile of mackerel fillets.

I'm not great with recipes. I mean, I'm not 'stone soup' (I'll explain later) with them, as my mother can be. But I feel I have somehow failed if I actually follow one without modification. Thus it was with my monkfish recipe. It was roughly equivalent to one given for scallops in 'Billingsgate' but I thought that the monkfish would work well, as it can take strong flavours. I dislike pfaff (sounds like an ingredient) in recipes so 'Billingsgate' is a cookbook after my own heart: a bit too 'luverly jubbly' and 'eating battered cod and mushy peas with me old nan' in places perhaps, but satisfyingly stripped-down and straightforward with a minimum of fuss. Unlike that last sentence.

Monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) is a member of the not-overly-attractive Anglerfish species. It has an enormous head (they are sometimes known as Headfish) and a relatively tiny body and tail. All the eating is the body/tail part, although I'm sure you could make a fine if somewhat scary stock with the head. They are sold without the head on and are easy to prepare: pull off the tough skin from head end towards the tail; slice away the slimy membrane; cut tight along the edge of the pin-bone-free backbone on either side to release the fillets.

The meat is dense and succulent. It was commonly used in place of prawns for making 'scampi' - what a waste. I simply fried some thickly-sliced chorizo then set it aside while I cooked up the monkfish in the delicious red chorizo oil. I added red pepper (home grown) and a little red chilli before returning the chorizo to the pan and adding lemon juice, parsley and seasoning. Served up with couscous with some sundried tomato chopped through, it's sure to put a little Mediterranean (sic) into your bleak Highland winter night.

Oh, nearly forgot the stone soup. You've probably heard it: the fairytale of the hungry pauper who manages to get into the castle for a meal by telling the king that he has a magic soup-making stone. He tells the royal cooks that they simply need to add water, meat, vegetables and seasoning to a large pot with the 'magic' stone in it and it will make some of the best soup they have ever tasted. My wife tells a version with a nail in place of a stone but I reckon a rusty nail might add some nice irony (ironey?) flavours.

The rather circuitous reference to the stone soup and my mother's cooking is to do with the way she has been known to treat recipes. It seems to me that she'll look at the ingredients then choose ones that are so far removed from those given that there's perhaps no semblance of the recipe in there. One example is a Banoffee (banana and toffee) pie which she told my wife she wouldn't like, my wife not being a fan of bananas. It turned out that the 'Banoffee' pie was actually Malteser (which my wife is certainly partial to) chocolate pie.

Perhaps you'll find recipes more fun if you take them with a pinch of salt. No, there's something wrong with that sentence too.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Hail Razor

Welcome to February. I read a short story last night in which the months were personified. February was a rather nondescript character.

Our February began with a ridiculous hail storm at around 1.30am. My wife called it a "comedy hail shower" because it was laughable that just when you thought it couldn't get any louder, it did. I ventured downstairs to see how big the hailstones had been (stupidly large) to find the alarm lights flashing on the car, presumably from the hail-battering it had taken. There was no alarm sound, though, which I thought was strange. How are you supposed to know your car alarm is going off if it's silent? That isn't a philosophical question. If I hadn't gone downstairs I suppose we would have just found the car battery flat in the morning, and would not have been able to understand why.

Today the sky has cleared somewhat. But a stiff breeze, the 'mild' temperature and lurking black clouds almost certainly herald more stormy weather.

To make sense (ish) of the title of this blog entry I have included a picture of the razorfish with Gremolata that I had for my lunch last week, the day after my fruitful beaching. I got the recipe out of John Wright's excellent "Edible Seashore", although I used lime zest rather than the regulation lemon. The idea of "flashing" the razorfish under the grill and eating them nice and hot sounds appealing but, in reality, I think they cool too quickly for this kind of cooking. By the time you are halfway through they start to get a bit cold and rubbery and you become all too aware of what you are eating. I think next time I'll stick with cutting them up into small pieces and frying them.

It was, nonetheless, a tasty and filling meal. All that gnashing and tugging brought out my inner Neanderthal (again).